The power of words or “For fuck’s sake, stop saying ‘Green Tape'”

The word ‘spin’ gets tossed around a great deal when people discuss politics, particularly in the abstract. “It’s all spin, you can’t believe a word she says,” is a common refrain around the dinner table in much of Australia right now. But this takes a narrow view of what ‘spin’ can really mean.

In the first instance, when the word gained common usage, it tended to apply to the re-working of a negative into a positive. While real estate agents had been promoting ‘renovators dreams’ for decades, politicians discussing rising interest rates as indicative of strong economic growth, and ignoring poor economic growth to instead focus on falling interest rates was fresher.

But that was then. The world of political communications has evolved a great deal. ‘Spin’, as we would know it, is new. Rebuilt. It is proactive. It is insidious, it is everywhere and worst of all it is hugely effective.

We are only recently emerging from a hugely unedifying ‘debate’ over the asylum seeker ‘problem’. Without getting bogged down in the various sides of that debate, it is the language used during it that is of most relevance. Over the course of the last decade, the phrase ‘solving the asylum seeker problem’ has become central. No one has seriously addressed what that ‘problem’ is, flitting between ‘protecting Australian jobs’ and the epic concern troll that is ‘stopping people dying at sea’.

To the public, however, that ‘problem’ has long been defined by three simple words:

“Stop the boats”.

A massive, intractable, international challenge, full of economic, social, and foreign policy causes and implications is distilled to an easily digestible tidbit. One that localises the global refugee issue, and frames it in such a way that it is near-impossible to argue for anything but an inhumane response without appearing slightly unhinged to the average voter.

Never mind that we are party to a coalition of nations that has spent a decade bombing at least two of the countries where these desperate refugees are coming from. Never mind that the mere thousands of refugees we face pales in comparison with the two million Afghan refugees in Pakistani camps alone. This problem is about stopping boats, and all the terror that implies to people inclined to be terrified.

How about we try another line?

“Great big new tax on everything”.

Anyone notice how the debate around climate change almost never involves the discussion of climate change anymore? The effectiveness of this line has completely shifted the debate around climate to one of ‘who will lose and how much’, one that is custom-built to absolutely devastate support for tax increases of any kind. No matter that the carbon price is not big, not a tax, nor on everything; the line works, and nobody seems to even want to talk about the threat of climate change, unless they’re a particularly frothy-mouthed shock jock eager to denounce it as a hoax.

On this site, Barrie Cassidy spelled out wonderfully where the Prime Minister foot-faulted on this issue, so there’s no point diving into the minutiae. Suffice to say, here lies another instance where the words our leaders use are hugely influential in determining how the public thinks on issues of major import.

There’s a third, newer one, too.

“Green tape”.

While it’s important to note that there is certainly a great deal of unnecessary duplication of environmental regulations in Australia, and a case to be made that there can be more efficiency in protecting our environment, the phrase ‘Green tape’ is a work of dark genius.

Serving as a proxy for ‘removing environmental protections’ it conveys, in two simple words, a message that resonates deeply with the public, appearing clear-headed and realistic, and perfectly concealing the profit-motivated organisations behind the push from Coalition state governments to gain control of the environmental approvals process.

Everyone understands ‘red tape’, and they know it to be bad. Everyone knows ‘green’ means ‘environmental’. Thus, these are bad, wasteful, bureaucratic environmental impediments to Getting Things Done.

See how this works? There is always discussion in the media of how the modern Australian media consumer is ‘more sophisticated’ and can ‘see through the spin’. And this is certainly true; the immediate mockery of the PM’s ‘real Julia’ and ‘moving forward’ and [name your giggle-inducing attempt at ‘creating a narrative’ here] demonstrates that much.

But this overlooks the fact that the communications guys have grown more sophisticated too. They don’t want to talk directly to voters anymore. They need a pithy phrase that will frame a given political debate in such a way as to make their position unassailable. It’s not about convincing the public to agree with their view. It’s about making the public think about a political debate in such a way that their view is the ONLY answer.

So perhaps that is the next step in the public’s media awakening. A new generation, savvy to the tricks played on them, will learn that any issue is about more than the slogan their political leaders throw at them. Going by the standard of debate we’ve seen in recent years here, one can only hope.

Tony Abbott – concern troll

Thus far in the life of this blog I have been loathe to openly criticise either side of politics, but this week, I feel that a new low was reached. I understand that ‘new low’ is a phrase that has been trotted out with such dismaying regularity as to rob it of its real meaning (much like ‘hero’ is an utterly bastardised and devalued term today), but the Abbott switcheroo on Craig Thomson really, really stuck in my craw.

The day after Thomson appeared before the press and asked them, basically, to back off because the pressure was getting to be too much, the media discussion naturally, and surprisingly lengthily, turned to the state of Thomson’s health. More pertinently, the relative importance of all the politicking, when stood against the prospect of a man, under such intense pressure that the prospect of self-harm becomes very real.

Many fine words were written, none better than Barry Cassidy in yesterday’s Drum, about the need to weigh the value of a man’s life over the ephemeral nature of power in today’s democracy. And the vast bulk of the ink spilled was wise and to the point. A healthy, moral democracy absolutely requires a line that should not be crossed. Not in a Gillard-suddenly-deciding-that-Slipper-and-Thomson-are-expendable kind of way, but considering the very real prospect that a man’s mental well being is deeply at risk. A man with a family who no doubt are sharing his trauma.

Abbott and the coalition have every right to tear into the government for its stupidity and intransigence on matters like Thomson and Slipper. But the relentless pressure applied by the opposition towards a man charged with nothing, when Bill Heffernan stands accused of assault, and senator mary Jo Fisher was found GUILTY of assault after also being charged with shoplifting was already beyond the pale.

To the turn around in the face of this sudden national concern for Craig Thomson’s mental health and suggest that the only solution for him to leave parliament was the most sickening form of concern trolling I have seen in Australian political life. Abbott, who is far and away most responsible for making Craig Thomson a marked man, who has been harping on about the ‘stain’ on this government for a year or more now, suddenly deciding that Thomson leaving parliament is for his own good, and not in the interests of him or his party is an appalling piece of political opportunism.

Thomson remains charged with no crime, despite his fairly fanciful claims of conspiracy, and has by and large conducted himself with as much dignity one could expect from a man accused of defrauding members of a union to rent hookers.

Abbott, on the other hand, apparently has no internal moral compass, no ethical line he won’t take a running leap over in his quest to claim the Prime Ministership.

Ordinarily, at this point, it would behoove the author to suggest that it would be no different if the parties were reversed, and I have no doubt that were the Liberals in minority government and Thomson on their side, they would be behaving much the same. However, nothing in Julia Gillard’s behaviour suggests that she, as opposition leader, would be as irresponsible, unethical and disgustingly hypocritical in her pursuit of power as Tony Abbott has been in his.

Again, it raises questions about the man who would be king, and the lack of scrutiny we are applying to him before his almost inevitable ascension.